Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"THE FIRM" (1993) Review




"THE FIRM" (1993) Review

To this day, I am surprised that film critics and historians have not looked back on the 1990s as the "Age of Grisham". I am referring to attorney-novelist, John Grisham, who wrote many bestsellers - especially his legal thrillers that were released between 1989 and 2000. In fact, the decade also saw several adaptations of Grisham's bestsellers - including 1993's "THE FIRM"

Based upon Grisham's 1991 novel, "THE FIRM" told the story of a recent Harvard Law graduate named Mitchell "Mitch" McDeere, who is seduced with perks that include a new house and car by Bendini, Lambert & Locke to join its small and prestigious law firm in Memphis. He is there to specialize in accounting and tax law. After he and his wife, Abigail "Abby" move to Memphis, Mitch acquires a mentor named Avery Tolar, one of the firm's senior partners, to teach him the firm's professional culture, which includes complete loyalty, strict confidentiality, and a willingness to charge exceptional fees for their services. However, the recent deaths of two BL&L attorneys in the Cayman Islands and an encounter with a pair of F.B.I. agents named Wayne Tarrance and Thomas Ritchie lead Mitch to seek advice from his convict brother Ray and the latter's friend, a Little Rock private detective named Eddie Lomax. Unfortunately, Lomax's murder at the hands of the firm's thugs, his one-night stand with a strange woman during his trip to the Caymans with Avery, and the FBI's revelation that BL&L is a front for laundering money for a Chicago mob family makes Mitch feel that he has no choice but to cooperate with the FBI - even if it meant being disbarred.

To this day, I regret that I had never seen "THE FIRM" at a movie theater. Come to think of it, I have only seen one Grisham movie adaptation in the theaters - 1994's "THE CLIENT". Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed "THE CLIENT". But if I had to choose between that and "THE FIRM" to see at a movie theater, I would choose the latter. "THE FIRM" is a first-rate legal thriller that was released during the summer of 1993. Which I found unusual, considering it is not the type of movie that is usually released during that particular season. Perhaps that was the reason why I had ignored it when it was first released. Dummy me.

What can I say about "THE FIRM"? It is a well written mixture of legal, romantic and criminal drama, along with some well-paced tension. The movie even featured action scenes that kept me on my toes. Foremost of all, "THE FIRM" is about the corruption . . . or attempted corruption of one Mitchell McDeere. He must have seen like the perfect candidate in the eyes of Bendini, Lambert & Locke's senior partners. Mitch was among the top five graduates in his class. He pretty much made his ambition clear during his job interview near the film's beginning. And I noticed during his and wife Abby's initial trip to Memphis, he literally seemed thrilled by the attention given to him by the firm's employees . . . along with the high salary they were willing to pay him. Knowing that he came from a working-class background, it seemed obvious that one of the senior partners, Oliver Lambert, knew how to manipulate Mitch by utilizing a "We're more of a family" speech during this trip. And after he had revealed his first encounter with the FBI, during seminar trip to Washington D.C., the firm went out of its way to ensure that Mitch would be fully corrupted and trapped by setting him up with a prostitute during his trip to the Cayman Islands with his mentor, Avery Tolar.

But you know . . . the firm could not have corrupted Mitch on its own. Its partners had helped . . . from Mitch himself. There is nothing wrong with ambition. But it seemed obvious that Mitch was so hindered by his insecurity over his working-class background that he made it almost easy for the firm to corrupt him. I noticed during his and Abby's initial trip to Memphis, Mitch became so caught up in the idea of being part of the Bendini, Lambert & Locke "family" (which included a new house and car) that he tuned out Abby's observations about the rigid nature of the firm's employment standards. Even worse, Mitch's class insecurities led to that fight with Abby before his trip to the Caymans and into the arms of that prostitute. The firm may have arranged his encounter with her, but Mitch made the choice to cheat on Abby that night. His encounter with F.B.I. Director F. Denton Voyles in Washington D.C. finally opened Mitch's eyes to the true and corrupt nature of the firm . . . along with his own precarious situation. 

Although the F.B.I. led Mitch to finally see the light, I must admit that I found their idea of what constituted justice rather alarming. In the agency's fervent attempt to bring down Bendini, Lambert & Locke, Director Voyles and Agent Tarrance had no qualms about coercing Mitch into cooperating with them. They offered him two choices - steal and expose the firm's files . . . or eventually face prosecution with the firm's other attorneys and partners. I other words, the F.B.I. gave Mitch the options of disbarment or prison. And both would spell the end of his brief career as an attorney. The Little Rock private detective, Eddie Lomax, had been right to warn Mitch that the F.B.I. could not care less about him, despite the fact that Mitch knew nothing about the firm's criminal ties. I am sorry, but this is not my idea of justice.

"THE FIRM" had made changes to John Grisham's original plot. In the movie, Mitch received a Mercedes-Benz, instead of a BMW for joining the firm. In the novel, Avery Tolar was Avery Tolleson and in the latter, he was not portrayed with any sympathy . . . just another villain like the other partners. Mitch had confessed to Abby about his one night of infidelity in the movie. No such thing happened in the novel. There were other differences between the movie and the novel. But the biggest one proved to be the ending. Many Grisham fans have expressed displeasure at the decision of director Sydney Pollack and screenwriters David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel to change Mitch and Abby's fates. The novel ended with Mitch scamming $10 million from the firm and finally turning over their files to the F.B.I. This act led him, Abby and his brother Ray to make their escape to the Caribbean, continuously sailing from one end of the Caribbean to the other in fear for their lives. Pollack and the screenwriters decided to change this by having Mitch come up with a way to get the firm's attorneys prosecuted (thanks to a disgruntled client) by exposing its systematic overbilling scheme. This would bring down the firm, force the Morolto Brothers to find another firm willing to accept them as clients in time to avoid charges for non-lodgment of tax returns. Due to Mitch's new scheme, he is able to retain his law license, maintain his life in Boston and save his marriage. 

How do I feel about the ending? I loved it. I much preferred it over Grisham's ending. I found it original and very clever. Bendini, Lambert & Locke still ended up destroyed, thanks to Mitch's exposure of its overbilling scheme. I also enjoyed the fact that Mitch not only managed to get $750,000 from the F.B.I. for Ray to enjoy, but also force the agency to work in bringing down the firm. When Mitch had his final confrontations with both the Morolto brothers inside their hotel room and Agent Tarrance, I could not help but express my pleasure of this turnout with a wide smile.

There were other aspects of the "THE FIRM"'s plot that I really enjoyed. The movie also proved to be a real thriller. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured Mitch's attempts to evade the firm's murderous goons; along with Abby and the late Eddie Lomax's secretary, Tammy Hemphill's attempts to distract the pleasure seeking Avery and copy the firm's more important files in the Caymans. But the movie also featured some outstanding dramatic scenes. The ones that usually came to mind are F.B.I. Director Voyles' revelation of the firm's true nature; Mitch and Avery's meeting with one of the latter's clients in the Caymans; Mitch reveals the firm's true nature to Abby; Eddie Lomax's confrontation with two of the firm's goons; Mitch and Abby's confrontation over his brief affair in the Caymans; Mitch's meeting with with Morolto brothers (which I found very satisfying) and the McDeeres' reconciliation near the movie's end. 

But it is not just the plot and especially its ending that gave me pleasure. I thought John Seale's photography for the movie was top notch. I was especially impressed by his photography in Memphis, Tennessee; Washington, D.C.; and the Cayman Islands. I also thought Fredric and Wiliams Steinkamp's editing was impressive, as well. I was especially impressed with their work in one minor and one major sequence - Mitch's revelation about the firm's true nature to Abby and Mitch being chased all over downtown Memphis by the firm's goons. But if there is one technical aspect about the "THE FIRM" that really impressed me, it was Dave Grusin's score. I thought it was outstanding. It is one of the few scores that seemed to blend perfectly with a movie's plot and setting. Grusin earned an Academy Award nomination for his work, but lost to John Williams' score for "SCHINDLER'S LIST". A part of me wishes that Grusin and Williams had shared that Best Original Score Oscar . . . or Grusin had walked away with the award.

"THE FIRM" also had the good luck to possess a superb cast. All of the performers went far and beyond to give first-class performances. Some of the supporting performances that I found memorable came from Tobin Bell and Dean Norris, who portrayed two of the firm's hitmen; Terry Kinney as Lamar Quinn, one of the firm's younger attorneys; Barbara Garrick as Lamar's wife, Kay; Jerry Hardin as Royce McKnight, one of the firm's senior partners; Sullivan Walker, who portrayed a Cayman scuba diving businessman and one of Mitch's allies; talent agent/promoter Jerry Weintraub as questionable businessman Sonny Capps; Karina Lombard, who portrayed the young prostitute that seduces Mitch; Lou Walker as Mitch's disgruntled client Frank Mulholland; and Margo Martindale as Mitch's secretary Nina Huff.

The movie also featured some really memorable performances from the likes of Hal Holbrook, who gave a subtle performance as the firm's soft-spoken senior partner, Oliver Lambert; Ed Harris, who I thought was entertaining as the rambunctious F.B.I. Agent Wayne Tarrance; Steven Hill, who struck me as rather intimidating as the F.B.I. Director F. Denton Voyles; a very entertaining Gary Busey as Little Rock private detective Eddie Lomax; David Strathairn, who skillfully projected a mixture of charm and borderline despair in his portrayal of Ray McDeere, Mitch's convict brother; and Wilford Brimley, whose portrayal of Bill Devasher, the firm's leading thug, struck me as a very interesting mixture of homespun wisdom and insidious thuggery. Of course, there was Holly Hunter, who gave a very charismatic and Oscar nominated performance as Tammy Hemphill, Eddie's secretary and Mitch's ally. 

However, for me, the heart and soul of "THE FIRM" were its three leads - Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Gene Hackman. Well, the movie's real lead was Cruise, who gave a mesmerizing performance as Mitch McDeere, the young attorney, who found himself at the center of a struggle between the F.B.I. and Bendini, Lambert & Locke. I almost found myself saying that Cruise's performance was an early sign of his long-lasting fame as an actor . . . until I remembered that he had already been successful for a decade by the time he starred in "THE FIRM". For an actor that was barely thirty at the time, he more than held his own with a group of older and very talented actors. He also did a great job in carrying the movie on his shoulders. I must be honest . . . I have not seen Jeanne Tripplehorn in many movies. In fact, I have only seen her in less than four. But I was very impressed by her quiet, yet strong and elegant performance as Abby McDeere, Mitch's well-born wife who was the first to sense something odd about the firm. What I especially liked about Tripplehorn's performance is that she was not merely reduced to be Cruise's side ornament. She portrayed Abby as a fully realized character with her own character arc. If I had to give an award for the best performance in "THE FIRM", I would hand it over to Gene Hackman, who portrayed Mitch's alcoholic mentor and one of the firm's senior partners, Avery Tolar. I am surprised that Hackman was never given an Oscar nomination for his performance, for he truly deserved it. I thought he was excellent as the sardonic Avery, who used wit and an easy-going manner to hide a world-weary demeanor and corruption that had more or less crushed his spirit. It was a very fascinating performance to watch.

One would notice that I have yet to say one thing negative about "THE FIRM". Well, I do have one complaint. Ironically, that complaint centered around the film's performances. Wait . . . did I not just praise nearly all of the performances to the sky? Yes, I did. And the cast was fantastic. But . . . there were moments in the film in which most of the major cast members have this penchant of making mind-blowing comments with an offhand casualness that struck me as forced. False. And if most of the cast were making this mistake, I have only one person to blame . . . director Sydney Pollack. I really wish he had not clung to this forced casual style of acting. I usually find it in a Steven Spielberg movie and quite frankly, I do not like it. I have never liked it in any of the Spielberg movies I have seen . . . and I did not like it in this film.

Aside from that one complaint, I found "THE FIRM" very satisfying. Who am I kidding? I love "THE FIRM". It is my favorite adaptation of a Grisham novel. It is also one of my favorite movies from the 1990s and after two decades, it has managed to hold up very well. And one has to thank John Grisham's excellent novel; David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel's adaptation; and a superb cast led by the always talented Tom Cruise.

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